February 23, 2011
A Twist on Unferth’s Significance
In John Gardner’s Grendel, characters that had no voice in Beowulf are suddenly given identities and personalities. Of course, the reader gets quite the view on Grendel, but Gardner also delves into the mind of Unferth. I believe Gardner’s decision to change Unferth’s character and give him a chance to speak his mind, unlike the Unferth we met in Beowulf, has much significance. Unferth gets seen more like Beowulf’s character and his boastful attitude, his courageous march to Grendel’s cave, along with his competitive approach to talk with Grendel, give us hope that perhaps there is someone who is willing to be a hero and step out of the pack to take charge and do what is right. The reader immediately starts to lose sight of that inspiration after Grendel will not even use his strength to fight Unferth. The thought of Grendel’s world being “nothing: a mechanical chaos of casual, brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears” (Grendel 21-22) quickly becomes more realistic. Although Unferth can be slightly compared to Beowulf, the ultimate hero emerges in the end to kill Grendel’s belief of the world along with Grendel himself and show us that the mechanical world does not exist, and good will constantly triumph over evil.
Unferth’s purpose in the novel, to show us that Grendel’s world may be the true world and way life really works, begins when Grendel shamelessly heaves apples at Unferth’s face one night. Grendel’s typical attack on the mead hall, ended not so typically when Unferth, the kingdom’s hero and king’s second-hand man attempts to kill the beast and shouts “Monster, prepare to die!” (Grendel 82) Grendel, having his skewed view of life, and a genuine hatred for hero’s and those who have hopes and dreams, decides to embarrass Unferth and humiliate him in front of all of his men, instead of just killing him altogether.
After such an embarrassing scene and loss for Unferth, his attempt at heroism and competition continues despite the fact that now he is certain that Grendel can beat him. Unferth’s Beowulf-like idea to confront Grendel and attack at night in a hopeful attempt to be a hero, gives the reader no reason to stray from Grendel’s view that actions are meaningless and people are mechanical. Unferth tells Grendel that he is aware of how Grendel sees him and how it is false to imply that “what [he’s] made of [himself] is mere fairytale stuff” (Grendel 87), but this speech is unconvincing. Both Grendel and Unferth know that Grendel could “crush him like a fly”, (Grendel 89) so even the thought of a hero, a leader, or a strong man, could never be true until Grendel is dead and gone. Grendel’s view of the meaningless, mechanical world, will always ring true for however long he is alive because there is nothing that could compete with it and Unferth’s sad attempts at attacking Grendel make us believe even more of that truth.
In an interview between Gardner and Gargoyle Magazine, the fact that Grendel cannot accept heroism and that there are characters attempting to show Grendel that his view is wrong gets brought to attention. “Grendel is again and again given the opportunity of believing something which western civilization has held up as a value. For instance, heroism is one of the subjects taken up in the book very explicitly. A young man named Hrothgar decides he is going to be a hero. Just on faith he believes in heroes--he hasn't really thought about it--and he's willing to die for this principle. Grendel, who doesn't believe in anything, that's why he's a monster, makes fun of him and makes him doubt the idea of heroism.” (Gargoyle Magazine: Interview with John Gardner) Although this position sheds light on Hrothgar, I think it can be used to speak of Unferth too. When Unferth chooses to take initiative and go to the cave to show Grendel he is a hero, Grendel is masked by his twisted ideas of the world to even contemplate the thought that maybe heroism exists. His stubbornness and inability to see the other side is convincing, so convincing it breaks Unferth down completely leaving us to believe that Grendel could be right and that there is no one to defeat him.
Unferth may be a glimpse of a hero, but we are certain by the end of his talk with Grendel in the cave that he will not be the one to end Grendel’s madness, if anyone at all. There is nothing standing in Grendel’s way to stop believing that the world is meaningless and void, and Unferth was put in his way to only make his belief more certain. Grendel reassures himself that he is right; he mentally beats Unferth, and then says “So much for heroism. So much, also, for the alternative visions of blind old poets and dragons”. (Grendel 90) Grendel is fully convinced now that the world is what he thought and no other beliefs mattered, not the harpers’ and not the dragon’s, because he knew that if he could defeat the hero, then there was nothing to life and no point in anything, for he was the strongest creature alive.
Not only does Grendel have himself convinced that he is the ultimate creature and that there is no competition for him which makes the world a mere empty hole, but he also has Unferth convinced. Unferth confronts Beowulf and advises him that if he “wait[s] up for Grendel for one night’s space [then] all [his] glorious successes will be done with” (Grendel 161), not only out of jealousy because Unferth is quickly becoming invisible with the arrival of Beowulf, but also because he is truly defeated mentally and physically by Grendel. Unferth has begun to think as though Grendel’s view of the world without hero’s or hope might just be true.
We begin to wonder how many people’s beliefs Grendel has changed into thinking that in fact the world is “unreal, a harmless, sensible, smiling mask” (Grendel 157) throughout time with his constant murders and beastly appearance. Heroism may be the only weapon to change this view, even though Grendel detests the word and all it stands for. Although Unferth exhibits some essential qualities of a hero, Beowulf exudes heroism from head to toe. Grendel could see that right once Beowulf stepped off of his ship and onto Hrothgar’s soil. Grendel suddenly couldn’t tell if he “was afraid of them or not” (Grendel 156), for the first time in years, Grendel felt fear from a human. Later, as Beowulf and Grendel fight, we see Beowulf as the ultimate messenger coming to set Grendel free and anyone else who had his nonsensical view of the world. Finally, Grendel admits he is “suddenly awake”, his “history, falls away” (Grendel 169) and he is lifted of his role to play the evil character and killed by Beowulf.
Unlike Rosenberg in his book Journal of the Folklore Institute: The Necessity of Unferth, I believe that Unferth really had significant meaning to show people that Grendel is unstoppable and this world that he believes he lives in is true as long as he lives in it. Unferth lifts our hopes for a few pages until we realize he is absolutely no match for this monster, and once Grendel verbally abuses him and Unferth is humiliated, we know that there is no chance for Grendel’s dismay unless a miracle occurs. Rosenberg argues that “a new character is created out of the necessity to deal with given material” (Necessity of Unferth: 51) which essentially means we must learn of Beowulf’s triumphs and a character was needed to introduce them and question them for the reader to believe how great this Beowulf character is. Rosenberg calls this the “Unferth Digression”, meaning we stray from the real point, which is Beowulf defeating this monster and dragon and use this new man, Unferth, to give us background information on Beowulf. I realize that this may be the case in Beowulf, but it most certainly does not pertain to Unferth in Grendel.
The significance in Unferth’s character is apparent throughout his encounters with Grendel. His role to strengthen Grendel’s belief in this meaningless world and the reader’s belief that there is no end to Grendel is shown through Unferth’s humiliating attempts to fight Grendel. Unferth loses every time, first physically and then mentally, leaving us with no other option but to think maybe Grendel is right. Unferth shows some characteristics similar to Beowulf like courage and the will to fight and die, but it’s not nearly enough to break Grendel down. Beowulf enters the kingdom and sends the message to all of the people including Unferth that there is in fact a world that has meaning and hope. Unferth does indeed have a role to play in this story and the fact that he helps Grendel strengthen his belief that the world is void and empty makes Beowulf’s victory and Grendel’s death that much greater.
Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Random House Inc., 1971.
Rosenberg, Bruce. “The Necessity of Unferth”. Journal of the Folklore Institute.
Joyce Renwick and Howard Smith. “An Interview with John Gardner”. Gargoyle Magazine. Issue 11. 23 Feb 2011. http://www.gargoylemagazine.com/gargoyle/Issues/scanned/issue11/gardner.htm